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State A girls: Billings Central finds its magic, edges Bigfork in championship fight

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Posted at 10:44 PM, Mar 09, 2024

BUTTE — As Bigfork's Ava Davey released the ball and it floated toward the basket, Billings Central's Annika Stergar had one thought:

"Oh shoot."

Stergar had just misfired on two free throws with 7.9 seconds left that would have sealed the game, and Davey's running 3-pointer to force overtime looked true enough. It missed, and when it did Stergar and her teammates let loose on a fervent championship celebration.

Central gutted out a 41-38 victory over Bigfork at the Civic Center late Saturday night to win the Class A girls state basketball championship. The Rams captured the eight title in program history and denied Bigfork in its bid to win consecutive championships at different classifications.

"I can't even explain it," an emotional Stergar said during the postgame soiree. "It's just the best feeling ever. Oh my gosh."

It was a championship game that had the makings of a classic.

Bigfork, the presumptive favorite entering the tournament, had won 22 consecutive games and had a championship pedigree in its move up from Class A after winning the Class B title a year ago.

Central, stymied in its previous two trips to the championship stage in 2021 and 2022, was also a 20-game winner and found some magic at state with gut-check wins over Frenchtown in the first round and nemesis Havre in the semis.

The game featured seven ties and 10 lead changes, including four swings in the fourth quarter. Central, though, took the lead 39-38 with a Coral Old Bull offensive rebound and putback with 2:19 remaining and didn't waver.

Bigfork, led by the star sister tandem of Paeten and Braeden Gunlock and a terrific third option in Davey, went the final 5:45 without scoring, after Davey picked Stergar's pocket at midcourt and went in for an easy layup.

The key basket for Central was later scored by Ryen Hadley, who made a layup on a back-door cut to make it a 41-38 score with 1:06 left.

The Valkyries had three looks on their final three possessions, but when Davey's final attempt bounced off the front iron, Central took the crown.

"It's a bit surreal to be honest," said teary-eyed coach Jetton Ailes, who has led the Rams' program since the 2014-15 season. "You fight and you fight, and it takes a lot of luck; the ball bounces one way or the other."

It bounced the Rams' way, and they were able to win their first outright championship since 2012. It was the program's 13th title-game appearance.

Kamryn Reinker had 12 points and seven rebounds for Central, and Hadley finished with eight. Stergar and Coral Old Bull each scored six points. Stergar's 3 with four seconds left before halftime proved important. Old Bull was a menace on the glass, pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive end.

Paeten and Braeden Gunlock combined for 18 first-half points for Bigfork but had just three between them after intermission. Davey, who hit a game-winner in the semifinals to send the Vals to the title game, led with 12. Braeden Gunlock finished with 11 points.

"It was an excessively physical game," Bigfork coach Cortnee Gunlock said. "We had some opportunities but we just didn't make shots. We had a chance, and that's all you want is to have a chance."

"They gave me everything they had this year," she said of her team.

In Saturday's third-place contest, a deep 3-pointer by Dillon's Sage Tash with four seconds left sent the game into overtime, but Frenchtown gained the edge in the extra period for a 48-44 victory.

The Broncs' Mason Quinn played big, scoring 27 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Quinn shot 9 for 9 from the foul line.

Saturday loser-out scores

Dillon 58, Havre 55

Frenchtown 41, Miles City 38